Ron West had a difficult assignment upon taking the Illinois outside linebackers job last year. Both positions were new to the players stationed there, requiring a great deal of teaching, preparation and experience to play properly.
West says the 15 extra practices proved beneficial for the youngsters at both Bandit and Strongside Linebacker (SAM).
"We feel like we have some young guys. It was good having some extra bowl practices because we got some young guys more reps. It gave us an opportunity to look at some guys at the positions. Every rep they get, they get better and better. So I think it was really good for us."
The Bandit is a hybrid defensive end, outside linebacker who must be adept both at rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. West feels the athletes at that position are making progress.
"The Bandit spot is better than it was when we got here. Two guys have played in it, and we have a young guy coming that can probably help us."
Upcoming junior Michael Buchanan was first string all spring and throughout Camp Rantoul last year. He missed some games due to an off-field transgression but returned to make a good impression late in the 2010 season. During his absence, fellow junior Justin Staples provided a spark.
"Mike played a lot better towards the end of the year. That's why he ended up playing more snaps. With Justin Staples working there, he helped fill the role, and Justin had some starts. We were trying to find a guy that would step up and be more consistent.
"Mike became more consistent as the year went on and now has done real well with everything off the field. He is holding true to form, doing everything right on and off the field.
"Justin's an excellent student and a hard worker. He's learning the deal because it's something totally different than he's ever done. But it's a pretty good combination that we have two guys that are competing pretty much all year."
It was assumed entering freshman Darrius Caldwell would be third string at the position come fall. But West doesn't discount the possibility of the Georgia star competing for playing time early.
"We're gonna look at Darrius. You say third string, he could wind up being second or first. It don't matter to me. Right now we're going to put Darrius at Bandit, and we feel Darrius will be an excellent Bandit. We watched film and approved him as a Bandit."
West feels Caldwell fits the criteria needed by the defense at his position.
"He reminds me of a young Mike Buchanan. He has good speed, good range, good height, good long arms. He can get underneath routes.
"When you're in a down position on the line, he has enough range to get underneath some routes into the boundary that will make the quarterback at least lift the ball, which is what we want. If he lifts the ball, it gives the defensive back more time to break. And with a high throw, the receivers have to go up, and you have a better chance to knock it out. That's the whole concept. That's why we try to get a taller guy."
More experimentation will be needed this spring at SAM. 2010 starter Nathan Bussey graduated. West says he will be missed.
"Yeah. Ashante Williams got some snaps, but he broke a bone in his hand."
The cupboard isn't bare, but several people will be tried there in the spring. Youth will be served.
Both Thomas and Days are redshirt freshmen. Days played safety last fall. Thomas was recruited specifically for the SAM position.
"I think reps in the bowl game helped Earnest. We felt like he was a lot better than we thought from where he was. The reps in the bowl game helped him get a lot better."
In part two of this interview, West talks about the players he recruited for the upcoming signing class including Zeph Grimes, Ralph Cooper and Valdon Cooper. He talks about how the Illini are creating inroads in recruiting throughout the South and Southeast in part three.